Teaching as leadership critique part IX

Now that I’ve finished the entire book, including all the appendices, I’d like to make some conclusions and final reflections for any new teachers reading the book and especially for new TFA CMs.

I think that one of the central themes of the book is that effective teachers know how to be efficient with the one resource that nobody ever has enough of – time. There are only so many hours in a day to do all the things teachers need to and no matter how ‘relentless’ you are, that number of hours is a constant defined by physics.

To be an effective new teacher, you have to know how to prioritize your time during the school year. While you are training, this summer, you also have to know how to prioritize your time so that you make the most of the five week institute.

Here is where TFA has been inconsistent. They outline six principles and then they are never that explicit about which ones are the most important so CMs can make sure to dedicate to those a proportionate share of their limited time and energy.

I’m going to present three different viewpoints for how to prioritize the six principles so you can focus your energy appropriately over your summer training. First I’ll give the weighted percents as implied by this book, then I’ll let you know what I think a more useful weighting is, and finally I’ll let you know a bit about how the actual training differs from both of these on one very significant principle and how to compensate for this while you are in training.

First, from the book. Though they don’t explicitly give these numbers, I’ll just assume that the more important principles get the more pages in the book. The meat of the book is from page 15 to 227, or 212 pages. Of those pages we get:
Invest Students and Their Families 25%
Set Big Goals 17%
Plan Purposefully 16%
Work Relentlessly 14%
Execute Effectively 13%
Continuously Increase Effectiveness 10%

If I were to make my own list of what percentages would be an appropriate use of very limited time and energy, I’d say:
Plan Purposefully 35%
Execute Effectively 35%
Continuously Increase Effectiveness 15%
Work Relentlessly 5%
Invest Students and Their Families 5%
Set Big Goals 5%

Those first two, in my opinion, are so obviously linked to student achievement that if you don’t accomplish them, then no amount of ‘investing’ will compensate for it.

The actual 5 week institute has a different breakdown, particularly in what I consider at least tied for the most important principle, ‘Execute Effectively.’ As a teacher, I know that students don’t really internalize my learning goals until they have practiced whatever skill I’ve taught. This isn’t just true for Math, but for everything. A doctor needs hours in surgery, a pilot needs flying time, and a teacher needs to get up in front of a class and teach.

On page 278 in the description of the institute training model it says

Each corps member teaches as part of a three- or four-person collaborative that is supervised and mentored by both a veteran teacher from the school and Teach For America staff memeers. Teachers rotate in and out of the role of lead teacher …

What this means, translated into English, is that the total amount of actual practice teaching time in front of actual kids for each CM is approximately 19 hours, which is equivalent to just 3 actual school days. You see, each collaborative member teachers for an average of 1 hour a day. The institute is 25 weekdays, but the first 5, there are no kids yet and the last one also.

So out of 350 hours (that’s 14 hours a day times 25), 19 hours is a mere 5%.

This is definitely not enough. TFA never really saw this as a crisis the way I do, but that’s the system, and that’s what it’s been since about 1994.

With so little actual teaching, CMs learn some bad habits. With one hour of teaching a day, you should learn to squeeze your planning into about 2 hours per day, but I see people spending all-nighters on that one 1 hour lesson.

Here’s my advice to anyone going to the institute to compensate for this short-coming in the training:
1) Keep my percents in mind when you’re deciding whether to really carefully read that article about ‘malleable intelligence’ or to make a better lesson plan.

2) Create at least two lessons a day, including worksheets and activities, even if you’re not going to get to teach all of them. Get good at planning so you can plan a 1 hour lesson in about an hour and a half. This is a skill you’ll need when you’ll have to plan double the amount you plan in the entire institute in just your first week as a real teacher.

3) Find four other people and create a system where you can practice in front of them and they can practice in front of you. Each night the group can get together for an hour and each person can get about 10 to 15 minutes practicing giving instructions, explaining concepts, disciplining, just simulating the feeling of being in front of a real class.

Well, that ends my 9 part critique of the new TFA book. I’m not really sure what inclined me to do this, but it was pretty fun to think about. I hope that it helps CMs at least think about some of the issues.

Once I got past the first 2 chapters, I agreed with most of the ideas in the book. I didn’t agree with how much certain topics got emphasized over other topics (note the near absence of classroom management and discipline), but most of the points from chapter 3, 4, 5, and 6, were good ones.

I’ll continue blogging about this in response to any questions and comments.

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7 Responses to Teaching as leadership critique part IX

  1. Matt Brown says:

    I’ve read about half of these posts Gary, and really enjoyed them. Your remarks about making the best use of Institute time are 100% spot on, and can prevent some MAJOR headaches for incoming CMs. It isn’t worth staying up all night planning for that one hour lesson, and really does get CMs into unsustainable work habits, making that Christmastime breakdown all the more likely.

    I’ll read the rest of it soon, and I’ll post a link here on my TFA blog. Great work!

  2. :) says:

    I’ve read through your posts and I want to thank you for posting your candid observations about TFA and Institute. I only wish I read them 2 years ago.

    -LA 2008 CM.

  3. garyrubinstein says:

    You’re welcome. As someone who just finished the two years, I’d be interested in some details about how you think reading this two years ago would have changed your experience.

  4. Leslie says:

    As a CM who definitely pulled all-nighters for her one-hour lessons at institute, and who was just chewed up and spit out by the first week of school, I have to say I’d be in a much better place right now if I’d learned to plan two lessons a night and if I’d actually followed through on my intentions to STOP planning and rehearse.

  5. MavorW says:

    Interesting blog. Although I was not a TFAer I was a Orleans Parish Teaching Fellow from the New Teacher Project in New Orleans in 2003.. And before that a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I worked with and socialized with TFA members in both cities. Will I appreciated many of the TFA members I was, as you blog suggest, struck with how poorly prepared many of the TFA members were. So many did not last long. I realize how difficult New Orleans Schools were before Katrina, but it was, in many cases like sending lambs to slaughter. I don’t think any of them are still in teaching. My overall opinion of TFA is that in the long run it will hurt the profession and learning.

  6. B says:


    Found your blog this weekend and have been going back and reading old posts. I loved the critique of this book. I mentioned in another comment that I was in institute briefly before leaving and eventually returning to teaching through a traditional certification program.

    Even years later, I still carried a lot of the TFA-isms into my new teaching career (I have since abandoned them, or perhaps simply outgrown them). I would say the single most important thing I learned in my first year of teaching was embracing simplicity. I would spend hours creating these “dynamite” lesson plans that were essentially just show-offy grad-school theory stuff with a million moving parts. Needless to say, my students were not impressed.

    The truth is that a great lesson is simple. You say that it should take an hour and a half to plan a one-hour lesson. How is that rate sustainable over the course of a week? For me, I’ve gone from endless planning hours to the rule of “if it’s taking more than half an hour, you’re overthinking it.”

    I know this wouldn’t be popular to say around TFA members, but I swear that some of my best lessons happened when I scrapped my original plan and came up with something simple the period before.

    Here’s what I’m starting to believe, and I’d be curious to know if you agree: Students should leave every day almost (but not quite) thinking that lesson was either fairly easy or almost too easy (after taking differentiation into account). I would gladly take 180 well-executed small-steps lessons over 180 “big goals/solve the world’s problems in 40 minutes” ambitious lessons.

    I just feel that if your students are at Point A, the logical thing to do is take them to Point B. Perhaps they “should” be at Point M, but a teacher’s ambition alone won’t help them make an unrealistic jump.

  7. Aaron says:

    Listen, why don’t you guys just grow up and admit that YOU failed during your TFA experience; not TFA failed you. I, and many other CM’s had wonderful experiences. And most importantly, my students were highly successful.

    There have been many times in my life that I have attempted something and failed. That’s okay. That’s life. That’s the human experience. But what’s not okay, is for me to try to change the world’s perception of my failure so that it appears that I was right and everyone else was wrong. This really is a matter of maturity. Step into adulthood.

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